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 By Mark Purchase (PhD) mpp@xtra.co.nz

World War 1 1914-16 (BEF)

Introduction

'Service records' of many WW1 soldiers were destroyed in London during WW2 bombing, so there's only "a 20% chance" in finding official information on them. With 60% of the original operational records lost the odds of finding something are not good. But any recognition of the brave men who went through this awful war is a tribute to their sacrifice. What follows is a reconstruction of the experiences surrounding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the opening stages of WW1, In particular we follow the First Battalion of the Kings Royal Riffles Corps (1/KRRC). (1) An indication of what occurred to the BEF during 1914-16.

Because of interest in this I decided to publish research from that study which might assist students of history.

The events of 1914 were a whirl-wind, and from 1915-18 millions were involved in huge battles (Some extremely complicated, others a slaughter). My grand father William Purchase regarded WW1 as 'a war caused by politicians who never saw action or the ravages of trench conditions'. He said there was 'no glory it at all, but shear madness'. And spoke of young soldiers swapping rations, cigarettes and singing carols. As a young child I recall visiting his home in Pt Chevalier, Auckland, New Zealand where he retired. He and his wife were always kind. He said to me (I've never forgotten) You can lead men, but you can't push them". Clearly a lesson of 1917 when men were tired of the futile sacrifice and their commanding officers.

The 1/KRR was a foot-battalion and " arrived in France in August 1914 and served in France and Flanders until the Armistice". (2) In 1913-14 there were only 4 regular battalions of the KRRC and 2 in England dispatched to France. (3)  "It was infantry shooting that dominated the day". And "the principle weapon of 1914 was the rifle", (Lee-Enfield). The infantry was "superbly trained". Yet England "had not made any preparation for war till war began, and the price of this was the lives of men."

War Declared

Sunday 28 June 1914, Archduke Ferdinand visits Serbia. The driver of the Imperial party took a wrong turn in Bosnia. The Archduke is shot and killed by a Serbian nationalist. As a result the European powers threatened each other till it escalated into mobilization. A problem based on treaties and impossible to stop.

Declarations of war were celebrated as men signed up. Of the 120,000 BEF sent to France "60%" were "Reservists". Calculated by previous wars, "75 per cent would be lost in 6 months". Yet historians say "For its size, it was the finest Army that ever left the British shores". Their motto, We'll do it. What is it?

Men arrived in trains from all over the country, but hardly a soul in England noticed the 8 train loads arriving at the Southampton Docks. On the 9th Aug 1914 they begun departing England landing at Le Havre, France. What a rapturous welcome. "It was good to be an Englishman that day". They possessed 1200 lorries, 131 motors cycles, but "a total lack of trench mortars and hand-grenades". (4)

The 2nd Div., "experienced a crawling train journey from Boulogne through Amiens and Arras to Wassigny" And, "marched 6 miles to Lesquielles St. Germain". Reaching "their destination long after dark, 16th Aug., but never the less met with a most cordial reception from the inhabitants on whom they were billeted". They billeted 4 days "...crammed full of training, inspections, and practice marches. It was hot, very hot, and the troops, while daily getting fitter, probably did not then fully appreciate the benefit conferred."

Sgt Thomas Painting (1/KRR) diary -

"On the morning of the 21st of August we started to march up to Mons, scorching hot. The French roads were cobbles, terrible to march on, and Route Nationale straight as a die. You could see for miles in front of you. The road seemed endless."

That morning they "marched via Etreux to La Groise. There for the first time had to find outposts — on the bridge at Catillon over the River Sambre. Next morning (22nd) the 2nd Division marched from La Groise by way of Landrecies to Pont-sur-Sambre. There the troops rested and bathed, this was to be the last chance they were to have of either luxury for many a long day."

A diary indicates that on 23rd Aug at 1 a.m. the 2nd Div., were "roused and assembled in the dark, only to spend a long hour waiting in the road while other troops got into position. Before dawn, the Division moved off, crossed the Belgian frontier and marched through Malplaquet. They arrived at Bougnies shortly after midday and heard for the first time the distant thunder of guns." This could be French units engaged. There were 90,000 British troops which advanced into Belgium to locate the German armies and 75,000 of the BEF at Mons.

Mons (23 Aug 1914)


Mons Township was a regional centre of a heavy mining and engineering industry. The landscape is gently hilly, cut by canals, railways, roads and pitted with slagheaps. The numerically superior German army (200,000) was surprised to find the British at Mons believing them at Tournai in France.

The morning they "collided" was fine and warm. 2 Corps held Mons and the canal to Conde (21 miles) while I Corps was between the French 5th Army on the right and the 3rd Div on the left. They "dug in among the slag heaps" and "held the Germans for a full day".

The 1/KRR Diary mentions their arrival at Mons. Digging trenches and the action starts -

"After Givry we pushed on a couple of miles north-east in the direction of where the German Army was coming and dug some trenches there. Number 70 Battery RFA was on a ridge just to our left. A coupled German aeroplanes came over, spotted the guns' flashes and opened fire. Then Jerry's artillery started searching the ground, which cut one section of my trench to pieces. The gunners had three of their guns knocked out of action but the gunners were jolly good and crawled from one gun to the other and kept them going. As one gun was knocked out, they got into action again…"

II Corps took the full weight of the first attacks. Encounters so intense the Germans believed the British riflemen had "machine guns".

1 Corps (HQ Havay) was safe in comparison. "Seven or eight British Battalions out of 24 in the II Corps had been seriously engaged, while the I Corps had been entirely untroubled". A 1st Corp Diary called it "A day of rest". The 2nd Div. were at Harvang behind the 4th Infantry Bgde. So the large advancing German army did not advance onto their position. The Scotts took them straight on. Meantime the French 5th Army (22-23th) had already taken huge casualties.

The larger German army wore the British down, setting fire to hundreds of houses, taking hostages and marching them in front of their advance. They broke through the French line and crossed the Mons canal so "attempts were made to blow the bridges".

German casualties at Mons were over 5,000 compared with the British 1,600. I Corps only lost 40. But it was not a victory. A quarter of a million Frenchman had been killed or wounded and the "suicidal mass attacks" broke through. With the French line broken the British urgently needed to withdraw to form a new line with the French.

The Great Retreat (24 Aug. 1914)


By that afternoon (3.15) II Corps began to withdraw in full view of the enemy. So bad were German losses they sounded a 'cease fire' and let them go. Over night 1st 2nd Corps fell back and arrived at their second position by 3 a.m. The BEF was now in retreat, the men already having lost a night of sleep.

At Mons a 1/KRR dairy –

"Jerry played a searchlight on us during the night, and we thought we were going to be for it but early the next morning (24th) our retirement started and we made our way to Baval, where the Germans shelled us. We moved off, but one of their cavalry regiments stopped the shells which were meant for us. We were very pleased to see that."

("Baval" see Mons map). One record says it "dawned misty". That would help the British but also "enabled the Germans to approach undetected". The 'Angels of Mons' was a 'journalistic invention', first made in the 'Evening News' on the 29th Sept, a month after Mons - a fake story about 'angels' in the sky over Mons. Exhausted men might experience mysterious events in times of crisis but some soldiers spoke of divine protection. The news spread quickly of the British retreat. Churches in England were holding 24 hour prayer vigils and their prayers would be answered.

One historian writes - "The British Army was saved by the skin of its teeth". And that the retreat was, "something bordering on a miracle (that) the BEF survived" (p.11 "Mons".  J. Terraine).

The Germans made mistakes
(a) they thought the BEF was retreating to the coast - it was south.
(b) They departed from the Schlieffen Plan.
(c) 'Removed men from the all important right wing'.
(d) Were always "closer than Kluck" realized. Their losses (and French) were greater than the British.


The retreat had no precise orders how or where as the Germans were in pursuit. At times, no one knew what was going on, they were "unbeaten, scarred and fighting". And medicine, food and supply was impossible for the retreating army, yet more remarkable events would continue to occur.

On the next day "the fighting was much more severe than at Mons". While the whole German advance was only 3 miles by the end of the day fatigue was a problem. Yet "once again, the I Corps had had practically no fighting to do". Their rearguard action was easy and light. On the march, men took off their shirts, and suffered sun burnt the next day. The men would have "marched 59 miles in the last 64 hours, beginning the march in the middle of an entirely sleepless night and getting only 8 hours altogether during the other two nights." They could "hardly put one leg in front of another" yet on they went:-

"The troops, tottering with fatigue, continued their marching, the Allies in retreat and the Germans in pursuit. Men fell out with heat exhaustion as the sun blazed out of a perfect summer sky". (5) "Marching they were hardly awake; halted, whether sitting of standing, they were instantly asleep".

No sleep, no food, and this was only the beginning. On the 25th Sept "Once again the I Corps was little troubled by the enemy… only a few shots… The 2nd Division saw even less"

During the retreat a gap as wide as 8 miles opened between the two Army Corps as they pasted the Forest of Mormal - 2 Corps on one side and I Corps on the other. Due to exhaustion and encounters with the enemy it was impossible to close the gap that night. "There was no question that the Le Cateau position being solely occupied by the II Corps", while I Corps would remain a distance away, both "exhausted".

Although there was the "inevitable confusion" it was the German General Kluck that was "at a loss to understand the British movements". At a vital time there was a "violent thunderstorm that broke in the early morning allowing the main body of the II Corps to slip into Le Cateau for a rest although the Germans were near". And the German's made mistakes "one that was fully paid for on the Marne" (Von Moltke), "the effects took time to work themselves out".

Rearguard Action: Le Cateau and Landrecies 25-26 Aug.

The 2nd Div of 1st Corps arrived in the area of Maroilles near Le Cateau 'about 6 pm' on the 25 Aug. And over the next few days experienced a "terrifying course of events".

The BEF was basically "too exhausted to march further". Hard on their heels was the German Army (5th Div. 3 Corps). Panic among the refugees started 'about 5.30' pm and they were streaming onto the roads. Le Cateau (some distance away) was already occupied by 2 Corps. The Germans had incorrectly believed there were no British at Maroilles and unaware the BEF was divided. And made another mistake, a frontal attack.

Patrols of German infantry started to emerge from the Forest of Mormal right in front of Maroilles and Landrecies. The German advance guard "unexpectedly caught-up with I Corps at Maroilles and Landresies". 1/KRR Diary - "On the 25th we got as far as Maroilles and anchored down. That was at the same time as the Germans made an attack at Le Cateau.

6th Bde "was just coming into its billets" when the shooting started. The Germans brought up a field gun, and the fight was on. The refugee congestion did not stop the fighting. The Berkshires lost 60 casualties but "as no more German troops put in an appearance, the action then came to an end, but it was a nervous night for the 6th Brigade, expecting a new attack at any moment". In fact the 1/KRR Diary says, "We had a night operation there alongside the Berkshires." The Berkshires suffered heavy losses.

"While all this was going on, the Germans were arriving in reality at Landrecies". During that night one could hear the sound of wheels and horses. The Germans started their attack that night (25th) with artillery in support. There are all sorts of legends about the night battle at Landrecies which reflect the mental confusion of a lack of food, sleep and exhaustion. It was simply a nightmare. Historians describe all this as "a serious incident" and the "26 August the most alarming day of the retreat". The officers of the BEF were scared, there was confusion, panic and reports they were surrounded.

"Corps Commander Horace Smith-Dorrien ordered II Corps to stand and fight…. The units of the Corps were arranged in the open downs to the West of the small town of Le Cateau".

Haig ordered the villages and Le Cateau organized for defense with barricades across the roads of furniture and anything else handy, all secret papers destroyed. Suffering from some disorder, Haig was heard saying "If we are caught, by God, we'll sell our lives dearly". Men were throwing mattresses and chairs out the windows of houses for barricades, town folk could only protest.

Yet - "For long hours during the morning of the 26th, the British, notably the field artillery, held overwhelming numbers of the enemy at bay and inflicted severe loss."

On the 26th "When our buglers sounded the charge, everyone went charging forward yelling like madmen. We charged through and through them, stabbing and hacking at each other until the Germans broke and ran like frightened hares in terror of hounds".

"Miraculously, the Corps disengaged and withdrew towards the South during the afternoon." The "total British casualties amounted to 7,812 of all ranks". A Medical Officer's diary (Travis Hampson MC) -

A tremendous fight was put up at Le Cateau against odds of about 8 to 1 in men and 10 to 1 in guns. It is also said that the Germans have had tremendous losses by advancing in close formation against our rapid rifle fire. Rearguard actions have been going on for four days. A few stragglers have come into Noyon and the fighting is said to be 10 to 12 miles to the north of us."

1/KRRC continued their retreat on the afternoon of 26th across country heading to Etreux. 1/KRR Diary -

During the day we saw our first French troops. I was surprised to see them and what they were wearing. Their cavalry went into action with their cuirasses on and plumed helmets; the infantry wore red trousers, a long blue overcoat and were wearing their war medals from the African campaign. They were going into action at Guise with no camouflage. But they suffered badly and had to retire. During that day we joined up with the Guards Brigade again." (The 4th Guards Bde., 2nd Div.) 1/KRR Diary –

"On the 27th we got to beyond the fortress of La Fère, where we had a break. General French saw us there. He seemed in good spirits that bucked us up a bit. Then we marched on to Amigny. We had a kind of day's break there. I suppose the action at Le Cateau and at Landrecies and Maroilles caused Jerry to pull himself up a little bit, because he didn't press us."

After the Battle of Le Cateau there was an effort to sort out the mixture of "utterly weary" units. And remarkably, "The 1st German Army now began upon the series of futile zigzags across Nth-Western France which ultimately brought it to the edge of disaster … it gave the BEF a welcomed breathing-space". While the 2nd German Army "was equally in the dark".

And so, "The I Corps came away safely, and halted on the high ground south of Guise, on the River Oise". The Germans didn't know about the serious gap of 18 miles between the two Corps. The 28th was a "hot and oppressive day.... troops had marched 60-70 miles since Aug 23rd., in 50 hours they were physically worn out, but the spirit was still high".

By this time I Corps was moving as a single unit on the roads which added to the heat and dust. And refugees were still a problem. The 29th was a day of rest and the gap was closed to 7 miles. At times the Germans believed the BEF was marching in "an almost opposite direction" to their earlier calculations. The 2 Corps retreated so "skillful" they now avoided been cut off. While the main body of Germans advanced in a slightly different direction to the BEF.

The 30th – 31st Aug., 1/KCC Diary -

"…..On we went in this really sweltering weather. On the night of the 31st we reached Coucy-le-Château and the next morning we marched through Soissons, where we had a few hours' halt on the River Aisne. We then had to hold a bridge at St Bandry until it was blown up by our engineers. Then we were off again at dawn. It was always dawn. We slept in the fields, just anchored down for an hour or so, and then moved again. Our food was dished up from ration carts which we ate on the march. Bully beef was issued in seven-pound tins. Well you couldn't expect someone to carry that weight so we used to open our tins and share it out. That was our ration, bully beef, biscuits and water: No time for anything else, seven-pound tins!"

1/KRRC soldiers mentioned about a thick "dark fog" hindering the German advance and they would "hold their fire to avoid hitting their own". But the British however had 'bright days and moonlit nights to continue the retreat'. There are a few references to 'fog'. One occurred at Nery on the 31st Aug. Another when a German Cavalry Corps unknowingly were "cutting right across the army's line of retreat". And they were "between on the French and Haig's I Corps". An English officer (Major Small) stumbled into them by mistake. He said, "there happened to be a thick fog" and he past through them by accident without been identified as British. He said, "The very sky itself took on a lurid and menacing hue".

What was happening? "The Compiegne Forest was blazing at this date". Fires were spreading "all over the country". Some skirmishes resulted in fires, but the BEF continued their retreat and the fires left behind hindered the German advance.

1st – 5th Sept.1914 Rearguard Actions of Villers-Cotterets. The 3rd Cavalry Brigade 4th (Guards) and 6th Brigade. British tactics were similar to those at Mons, "Intensive and accurate rifle fire". 1/KRR Diary -

"We fought a rearguard action at St Bandry (the district of Soissons) then marched to Hautevesnes, where we halted. The colonel came along and said, `Who's in charge here?' I said, `I am, Sir.' He said, `Right, down the road a little way, turn left and join in the next attack with C Company, range fifteen hundred yards.' We formed up on the right of C Company and then we made an attack on this German Jager Battalion, a horse and rifle battalion such as we were. The colonel's 1500 yards was over a cornfield which had been ploughed. It was just stubble, no cover at all. We had only two machine-guns in the battalion. As soon as we started, our machine-gun sergeant was killed at 1500 yards range…."

"We went forward as we had been trained - one section would advance under covering fire of another section, leapfrogging each other as the others were firing to keep Jerry's heads down. My company was going in with their bayonets when suddenly Jerry put up a white flag....

We were really surprised. We took 450 prisoners. I said to one of them, 'Why did you pack up when you've got so much ammunition?' He said, 'Well, your fire was so accurate we couldn't put our heads up to shoot at you.' We lost 12 killed and 60 wounded, they had lost about 180 men. We had to guard them all night. They slept nicely on straw while we had to guard them and give them half our rations!
"


This account is also mentioned in various history books as simply -

"Fighting in the early months still favoured the traditional Rifleman's skills of fire and movement and in 1914 at Hautesvesnes 1 Bn KRRC used them to destroy a whole German battalion".

The 1/KRRC Diary continues -

"We felt an enormous sense of pride after the strafe at Hautevesnes. It was absolutely a field day, fire and movement, fire and movement, one section firing while the other moved, intercommunication with each other, extended order. It really was an absolutely set-piece operation. And what was more satisfying to us was that it was a crack battalion, a Jager battalion, and we had held them. The Germans were not going to get their way.

"The next day it rained in bucketfuls and we were wet through to the skin but we found a farmyard, lit a fire and stood there practically naked while we dried our clothes.

Map: Arrows only a indication of German advance.

One story has that at some stage a platoon or company became lost on the battle field. A single cloud in the sky came along and they followed it. It took them in the right direction. It's unknown where this occurred, but added to a sense of divine protection.

On the 5th Sept. 1914 they arrived near Paris. "136 miles as the crow flies," but in the 12 days from Mons the exhausted men had covered "more like 200 miles as soldiers march". A remarkable effort for soldiers who would "sleep on the march". They believed it was 5-6 weeks since Mons, and surprised to learn it was only a few weeks.

They had been moving day and night and lost about 15,000 men. The Germans never published their losses, believed to be around 100,000.

 But now Kluck had exposed the German right wing to a Schlieffen Plan in reverse. By now the German advance was over extended so they halted. The British also noticed this, so ended the great retreat.

First Battle, Marne 6-10 Sept.1914

By the 6th Sept the first BEF reinforcements arrived to refill depleted ranks and the German advance (in exhaustion) halted without steady supply lines. The BEF had maintained a distance for a quick turn around. And so 11 pm that night commenced a counter attack lasting only 4 days yet, incredibly with the French, they drove the Germans north to Chateau Thierry, and then the River Aisne.

Sept-Oct 1914. The morning of the 9th Sept., the 1/KRR crossed the Marne at Saulchery and Charly, between La Ferte-sous Jouarre and Chateau Thierry. "Unopposed and across bridges the German's had left intact." The enemy retreated, "in wind and rain that kept their eyes, the aircraft, grounded and useless, the soaked Allies plodded in pursuit. By the evening of 10th Sept, the Battle of the Marne was over". The BEF lost 12,733 but over all, the battle was a serious defeat for the Germans, their continual advancing was ended. Hence it was called 'the miracle of the Marne'.

Battle of Aisne, capture of Aisne Heights and Chemin des Dames (12-20 Sept.1914). 

This battle was a follow-up offensive against the right wing of the German 1st and 2nd armies. It began on the evening of 12 Sept in the "aftermath of a rather belated pursuit of the Germans". The Germans intended to halt their retreat at the River Aisne and so entrenched themselves along the north bank.

The BEF launched a "frontal infantry assault" on their defensive positions across the river on their arrival (13 Sept). This was an unsuccessful event. Having established a bridgehead north of the river on 14 Sept, the Allies continued to assault the Germans on the plateau above them; German counter-attacks were in place within hours forcing them back.
The 1/KRR Diary mentions this,

" At the battle of the Aisne we got over the river and onto the high ground over a mile in front of the Aisne. We knew there was about a brigade of Jerries against us and we were only seven platoons. During the fight we got pushed back about 300 yards, we had to leave our wounded and dead. The Highland Light Infantry and Worcesters came up." Under strength they tackled a superior foe and suffered.

Another reference to the KRR on the 14th Sept. In "thick fog of the early morning", the British were digging in north of Vendresse. "It was a confused affair. The Sussex Regiment and the King's Royal Rifles attempted to send prisoners to the rear, but the defeated Germans going south ran into units of their own men and were shot down". This is likely 2/KRR (1st Div) as the Sussex Regiment were in the same Brigade.

Fighting was abandoned (28th Sept) as neither side could succeed and "everyone was tired out". From this point, "The opposing armies kept making attempts to outflank each other", until reaching Nieuwpoort early October (and in appalling weather). It was the so-called the 'Race to the Sea', but of course it wasn't.

Map - Flanking movements depicted are only an indication

The I Corps "was the last to arrive from the Aisne".

GHQ ordered Haig's I Corps, which had completed its move from the Aisne, to move to the North of Ypres I Corps, was the last to arrive from the Aisne, and deployed to reinforce the units under fire in front of Ypres. By nightfall they were billeted in a wide area between Poperinge, Elverdinge and Boesinge, ready to reinforce on the morning of the 21st Oct ".

A Diary; "in the early days of October 1914, my battalion with many others was withdrawn from that part of France and sent to Flanders. We were again made up to full strength from the home battalions."

Much of the BEF was sent north and advanced from or near St Omer to what ultimately was called, the "Ypres-Armentieres Battle line" between Zonnebeke and Bixschoole. "British strength had been increased by the arrival of I Corps".

 Battle of Langemarck 21-24 Oct 1914

"After the brutal experience of the previous week" once again the 1/KRR are up against a larger force and fail to reach Langemarck their objective. Langemarck was 6 miles from Ypres and in German hands. One historian writes,

By noon on 31st October 1914, the Queens, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Welsh and the Kings Royal Rifles had been overwhelmed, while on the right the South Wales Borderers had been rolled back. Gheluvelt had been lost and a serious gap had been made in the British line. So serious was the situation that unless the gap could be closed, a breakthrough could not be avoided".

"By nightfall the British line had been broken but, by a miracle, had re-formed and held, and Ypres and the Channel ports were saved.
" 'The gap' was plugged but the action dragged on.

The Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial - "hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers passed on their way to the battlefields of the Ypres Salient... The regiments most represented are King's Royal Rifle Corps with 1,444 names for the UK". One example, George Barnett (1/KRR) "was Killed in Action on the Menin Road near Gheluvelt, near Ypres on the 2/11/1914."

Of the BEF 2nd Div., casualties for 14 Oct - 30 Nov., numbered "5,769 of which 227 officers". There were large losses (6)

The 1/KRR remained in this area two more weeks and was relieved on 18th Nov 1914. The official "Story of the Royal Berkshire Reg.,"describes the 6th Bde withdraw -

"They set off at 04:00 marching to West Outre where they paused for breakfast at 10:30. They continued the march to billet in Caestre…" Marched off 4 a.m. Order of march, K.R.R., South Staffords and ourselves. Our destination was Caestra, where we are to have our rest, it was an 18 mile march, and a fairly stiff one considering the roads, and that the men came straight from a month in the trenches. The General waited to see us march in. His comment was Splendid, just as you have always fought.”

On leave from Nov-Dec., 1914. At billets they set up "a recreation room for concerts. The men were able to relax with some football games... drill… leave for England… hot baths.. visit Hazebruck". While at Caestre some likely had leave, a pass would allow 5 or 10 days, but returning to England was awkward –

"When I got home no one was interested what happened or knew what it was like….They didn't know and had no idea of what kind of danger we were in…"

" I became increasingly uncertain of the value of returning to England for periods of leave….Not being able to discourse about the things at the forefront of ones feelings. Such was England's attitudes I ought to have known…"

On leave in England without a uniform resulted in men receiving 'white feathers' (a sign of cowardice). They were considered cowards who should be at the front. During WW1 deserters were executed, conscientious objectors jailed and even "Trench Foot" (which could result in death) was deemed preventable and punishable.

The holiday was over in December. The 1/KRR headed for Trenches at Givenchy. "On the 22nd December the battalion left the Ypres neighbourhood for that of Bethune. Travelling by motorbus, beginning at 08:00 it was at Bethune at midday, a journey of 40 miles. They marched to Beuvry…The first night was fairly quiet with the occasional sounds of bombing and rifle fire. The mud and wetness of these trenches were a shock to the battalion, as to every other unit which entered them for the first time. Headquarters had to be fixed in the damp and muddy foundations of a ruined farm".

In these 'quiet days' men could still be killed by 'stray bullets'. "The British army used the relative quietness of the winter to regroup for the forth coming offences". (7) (New troops arrive rebuilding numbers). On 31st Dec., orders - move to trenches at Festubert. They arrived Jan 1915 and were greeted by "very heavy shelling", telephones not working and mud.

Western Front 1915 Stalemate, Stagnation.

The 1/KRR is "situated… in sodden trenches in the valley of the River Lsy". A "miserable life to be condemned to, shivering in these wretched holes in the cold and dirt… the real courage of the soldier is not (facing the enemy)but the fatigue and discomfort and misery"

Irish Guards Diary - "New Year’s Day was marked by the flooding out of a section of forward trenches, and by experiments with a trench-mortar, from which some Garrison gunners threw three bombs at an enemy digging-party a couple of hundred yards away". The Guards were, "relieved on the 3rd Jan by the King’s Royal Rifles".

Bitterly cold water averaged 3ft in trenches.  9th Jan.- "Another wet day, which will probably completely fill trenches…" And 7 "got stuck in the mud; one of them was not extricated for 6 hours. The relief took 6 hours in pouring rain, with one man killed and two wounded". So "trench-feet and rheumatism developed, and in 48 hours 50 men were sent to hospital for one form or other of these complaints".

12th Jan. New Orders - "Men were not to stand in the water for more than 12 hours at a time." This required "continuous relief of platoons" so leave at Béthune was possible with "steady drill and route-marches," concerts in the local theatre, and inter-regimental boxing.

Then back in the trenches, "Again they were stood to arms at 06:30 but relaxed to hold Sunday services at 10:00. At 15:00 they began relieving the Kings Liverpools in Givenchy village, they were impeded by a lively German bombardment but suffered no casualties…. The Staffords were on the right of B Coy and 1/KRRC on the left of C Company."

19th Feb. "C Coy and the KRRCs had a go themselves at the Germans, throwing five bombs in quick succession, but to no apparent effect."

By March 1915 "the losses suffered by the British in the previous year were made up". The 1/KRR is now at Cuinchy with billets at Le Preol. Cuinchy is between Bethune and la Basee and bisected by the Canal d'Aire with the Front to the east of the village. And the famous "Woburn Abbey Cemetery was started in early 1915 by the 2nd Division", next to a house used as a battalion HQ and dressing station.

Attack Cuinchy"Attack on the Keep".

A Diary " An attack on the German trenches near the Keep was planned for 10th March by 6th Brigade. The 1st Royal Berkshire was at first in reserve with the other three battalions attacking. They left Le Preol at 04:30 and took up their allotted positions…

The attack began at 08:10, when the South Staffordshire Regiment on the right succeeded in reaching the enemy trench, but were unable to establish themselves there owing to downhill machine gun fire and enfilade fire. In the centre the King's Liverpool Regiment were stopped by uncut wire, and could not reach the trench. On the left, the first line of the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps reached the trench, but their supports were unable to get up, owing to machine-gun fire on their flanks...


One soldier said – "The attack was opened with a heavy bombardment for about an hour, but the wire entanglements were not sufficiently cut and the Kings Liverpool Regiment and Kings Royal Rifles who led the attack, were compelled to retire…"

And so, "After this trench warfare was the order again and we were being continually bombed by the trench howitzers... One way we found stopped them more than any other, was to give three hearty cheers and jeer them well over it. After a while they almost stopped, finding they made no impression on us."

The diary of the 1st City of London Regiment mentions they were "relieved by KRRs" on the 29th March (just yards from German trenches). This location was littered with bodies. But trenches were often "fairly quiet with sporadic shelling" and work needed "on new dugouts" as rain made "trenches deteriorated rapidly". So battalions would roster.

While bivouacking in trenches around a farm at Le Tourt on the 'evening of the 12th May they practiced a night attack with the 7th Kings on the right, KRRC in the centre and 1st R Berks on the left. They were supposed to leap across ditches which were too wide and the whole exercise was a bit pointless. They were back in bivouacs at 21:30."

But the assault (part of the Battle Festubert) was "ordered for 23:30, on the 15th May. They had from 15:50 to make final preparations". The 2nd Div., "would attack from just north of Chocolat Menier Corner to Port Arthur".

The 1st R. Berks was in the centre of the brigade, with the King's Liverpool on its right and 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps on its left. The objective trenches were S. by E. of Richebourg l'Avoue, at a distance of about 450 yards from the starting point. All companies, except A which was sniping the German trenches, were to get out and lie 50 yards in front of the British trenches before zero hour (23:30). Cpt Radford [RA0001] was in charge of the two assaulting columns, A being kept in his own hands by Major Hill."

By 23:15 all had moved out in single file and lay in the open. The night was fairly dark, and C were about 150 yards forward at zero before the enemy opened on it with rifles and machine-guns. They raced over the remaining 200 yards and bursting into the first trench, they bombed its defences, and in some cases were in such close contact with the enemy that they seized hold of the German rifles and shot their owners…. Thus by midnight… the attack was magnificently timed and magnificently executed, although not without heavy losses
" (i.e., Liverpools, R. Berks)

One record says "the forward battalions of the 6th Bde (2nd Div) were successful in their surprise attack and occupied the German support trench". The Bde's each side were not, few men reach the German line. On the 17th May trenches were "knee-deep in water & blocked with wounded". The land "carpeted in bodies". Yet of the 6th Bde., only 650 casualties including 14 officers. The 2nd Div was relieved by the 51st Div on the 19th May.

Dispatch: Maj-Gen. Horne mentions this effort June & July 1915 -

"The Commander-in-Chief has intimated that he has read with great interest and satisfaction the reports of the mining operations and crater fighting which have taken place in the Second Division Area during the last two months. He desires that his high appreciation of the good work performed be conveyed to the troops, especially to the 170th and 176th Tunnelling Cos. R.E., the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, the 1st Battalion K.R.R.C., and the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment. The G.O.C. Second Division has great pleasure in forwarding this announcement."

While this sounds all very well, it hardly makes up for the awful mess and almost pointlessness of the whole situation. Such thanks are easily said, but many officers were never in the front trenches. One soldier wrote -

"Cuinchy bred rats. They came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly…." "I'm not exaggerating; some of them were as big as ordinary cats…" During shelling rats went "hysterical and ran out of the trenches". And men were plagued by lice and fleas as well, (with delousing centers behind the lines) "So bad in places I've seen men talking off their shirts with the skin absolutely raw." It was in May 1915 that 9/KRR entered the arena, 113 men from the 1/KRR were drafted on 21 July 1915.

Battle of Loos 25 Sep-8 Oct 1915.

Loos, north of the mining town of Lens was a flat ground with little cover for advancing troops and dominated by slagheaps from coalmining. Buildings were rubble.

"Compared with the small-scale British efforts of Spring 1915, this attack of 6 Divisions was a mighty offensive indeed - it was referred to as 'The Big Push'." (An attack on a 6 mile front with over 75,000 men)

The planned offensive was miserably wet on the 23rd and 24th so was delayed to 25 Sept at 0630 hrs after a 4 day bombardment. Reserves were committed at 1100 hrs on the 26th (24 hrs too late). So it was called off in failure on the 28th Sept. There were men in the ranks who should not be there yet Haig was persuaded to launch the offensive despite this misgiving.

The BEF 2nd Div was yards from German trenches (see map) "holding the northern sector of the British line, in the Las Bassee region". Next to the railway, the Indian Corps on their left. Though their front was only a mile wide they "had the most dispiriting task of all for (they)had losses without compensating success".

Another historian writes, "Advancing without any smoke cover, the men met a merciless fire from the enemy strongly entrenched behind their front line. Further attacks proved fruitless, and the operation was broken off. The 6th Brigade fared little better. Situated immediately south of the La Bassee canal with the same objective as the 19th Brigade, it suffered even more severely from gas and the leading companies met such heavy fire from defenses protected by uncut wire that no further attacks were made." (p43 Stalemate, J.H. Johnson)

While the 6th Bde 'suffered' they escaped a disaster. A website indicates the 1/KRRC 'hardly lost a man compared to other units'. Perhaps the unforeseen difficulties help avoid higher casualties. Why did the advance of the 'whole 2nd Division come to nothing'?

"On the extreme left of the attack, immediately south of the La Bassee Canal, the 2nd Division had had the misfortune owning to a change of wind, to be overwhelmed by their own gas, and their attack failed completely."

They advanced only yards and gas wounded about 2,000 and killed 7. "None of the men entered the enemy defenses" and at 08.00 ordered to withdraw. It would be 9 months (July 1916) before combat ready. During a gas attack, a relation of my grand father "Douglas Tysoe was gassed and evacuated to England to spend the rest of his life in hospital. He died in the 1960's. He was only 25 years old at the time of this battle."

However the 21st and 24th Divisions did advance and were slaughtered, an "expensive failure". The German's named the area the "Corpse-field of Loos", & ceased fire out of pity for a whole day.

"Hun used a lot of shrapnel against us - dirty stuff! We often picked up bits which fell all around us, but had to let them go at once - they were so hot". "If shrapnel hit you proper, it was worse than a bullet, it would tare you to pieces."

First-aid during battle was an overwhelming task. "The only value of a medial officer in a front-line trench was to help the moral of the men" (Cpt. M.Esler RAMC).

By October 1915 most of the original BEF units had been "reduced to a fraction of their original strength". So the remainder of 1915 (till July 1916) was a "time of rest" and rebuilding for the 2nd Div. The 1/KRRC was transferred on the 13th Dec. 1915 to the 99th Brigade (a transfer within the 2nd Div).

The Great Slaughter 1916

Troops at the front consisted of Kitchener's 'New Army', Territorial forces and from all parts of the British Empire. While steal helmets were introduced, as at Loos, replacements had little training and were without combat experience. Soldiers were "mostly civilians in khaki, hastily trained and thrown into battle" more lives wasted.

The Battle of the Somme commenced on the 1st of July 1916. See Martin Middlebrook's detailed study of "The First Day on the Somme" (over 300 pages).

Battle of Delville Wood 15 Jul-3 Sept.

This was a " fierce and complex Battle" involving many units and no small task. A "dreadful slogging match and conditions within the wood were appalling, with death and danger everywhere". The artillery had "reduced the trees to a morass of splintered wood making movement virtually impossible. It was fought at close hand with bombs and bayonets." Mud and water covered bodies; many remain in the wood today.

"The Wood had to be cleared of Germans before any attack could be launched on the formidable and notorious, German Switch Line." The orders - take it "at all costs" it took over 6 days and 5 nights.

14th July "attempts to clear Delville Wood had been strongly resisted… strong counter attacks went on for days". 15th July South African troops were slaughtered in an attack but the woods were finally captured. The Diary of 1st Bn Gordon Highlanders refers to the "heavy fighting and heavy shelling".

Morlancourt: a village on the road between Albert and Sailly Laurette north of the River Somme. "On the 26th June the village was full of troops and supply columns. On the 21st of July the 1st KRRC (99th Bde 2nd Div) arrived in the village and at the time were five battalions bivouacked in the village". 2nd Div was with XIII Corps.

25th July the Highlanders were "Relieved by 1st KRRC". Because of German counter attacks, this whole area was an awful 'killing field' - "flies rose in dense black clouds round us… exhaustion did what shell-fire failed… we collapsed in our trenches, spent in body and worn out in spirit… the task set was too great for us".

The 2nd Bn South Staffordshire Regiment "moved up into Delville Wood on 27 July 1916 with the 17th Middlesex Regiment in support of the 99th Infantry Brigade, relieving the 23rd Royal Fusiliers who were holding the western half of the wood."

One record says, "At 6.10 am on the 27th a severe barrage was laid on Delville Wood. At 7.10 am 1st KRRC and 23 R.F (99th Bde) advanced following the lift in the barrage. By 9. am they had reached their objective and held the line about 50 yards inside the Wood. 1st Royal Berks mopped up but did not push out to the eastern edge. Consolidation took place. The Germans began to shell Princes St, the new support position."

Albert Gill (Sgt 1/KRR) earned his VC at Delville Wood. On 27 July 1916 "the enemy made a very strong counterattack on the right flank of the battalion and rushed the bombing post after killing all the company bombers".

Gill "rallied the remnants of his platoon, none of whom were skilled bombers, and reorganised his defences. Soon afterwards the enemy nearly surrounded his men and started sniping at about 20 yards range. Although it was almost certain death, Sergeant Gill stood boldly up in order to direct the fire of his men. He was killed almost at once, but his gallant action held up the enemy advance."

"Conditions in the wood were now worse than ever. Most of us felt sick and ill even when unwounded. Food and water were very short and we had not the faintest idea when any more would be obtainable."

At some stage "The 1st KRRC, R. Berks and the 23rd R. Fusiliers led the attack driving the enemy to the further fringe of the deadly area". Delville Wood was overrun again but the R. Fus., "formed up in a trench at the edge of the Wood with the 1st KRRC on the right and the 1st R. Berks in support".

Records mention Bronfay Farm and Bronfay Wood and the road from Maricourt to Bray. "The 1st KRRC (99th Bde 2nd Div) were here on the 8th August about 300 yards west of the farm".

And Maricourt. The Albert-Peronne road north of Veuv on the River Somme "The 7th R. Irish Fus., were in trenches close to Falfemont Farm and Leuze Wood. Tucker describes the landscape there onwards for about 7 miles as being entirely bare and devastated. No greenery and covered with shell holes which merged one with another. The 1st KRRC were there on the 11th August having come from Bronfay Farm". And Hebuterne: a village in the southern part of the Pas de Calais 9 miles north of Albert "The 1st KRRC (99th Bde 2nd Div) relieved the 23rd R Fus., on the 25th August".

For Nov.1916 - 1918 click here.

Footnotes

(1) The King's Royal Rifle corps were active at Mons, Marne, Ypres 1914, 1915 , 1917, 1918, Somme, 1916, 1918, Arras 1917, 1918 Messines 1917, 1918 Epehy, Canal du Nord, Selles Sambre. The vast majority of the regiments effort was devoted to the western front, where it gained 8 VC’s, 2128 other decorations. In the Great War 57% of the KRRC were killed, 60 Officers were killed. 1/KRR became apart of the 6th Brigade, 2nd Division (1914-15) and served alongside 1st Berkshire Reg., 2nd Sth Staffs, and 1st Kings Liverpool Reg. (1915). It joined with the 99th Infantry Brigade 2nd Division 1915.

"The 1st and 2nd battalions fought in Belgium all through the war. 14 Battalions fought at the Somme, 1916, sustaining 4,200 casualties all ranks". A foot soldier was paid 1 shilling per day.

(2) After the start of the war (from 1914-1918) the KRRC consisted of 25 battalions, which the 'New Army' formed after 1914. Battalions 3 and 4 were assigned to Indian. 1st & 2nd Battalions went to Mons at the start of the war in 1914.

(3) 1st Bn. Regular. 04 Aug 1914 at Aldershot in the 6th Brigade, 2nd Division.
    2nd Bn. Regular. 04 Aug 1914 at Blackdown in the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division.
    3rd Bn. Regular. 04 Aug 1914 at Meerut in the Bareilly Brigade, 7th (Indian) Division.
    4th Bn. Regular. 04 Aug 1914 at Gharial attached to the 2nd (Indian) Division.

(4) In 1914 the BEF contained 2 infantry Div's each of 18,073 men 5,592 horses, 76 guns. A Division consisted of 3 infantry brigades - 4,055 men, 247 horses. A brigade consisted of 4 battalions - 30 officers, & 992 other ranks. A battalion consisted of 4 companies 1 gun section 2 guns. A company consisted of 4 platoons. A platoon of 4 sections.

(5) I quote from many war dairies this one is from the "Great war Dairies".

(6) The BEF "had almost ceased to exist, by the end of 1914 some 90,000 (or 90%) of the original BEF were casualties with 30% dead" Yet some survived the whole war and at ""Ypres, the Old Contemptibles, achieved immortal fame". Just a note. A division 'moved and lived as an entity and fought as a team'. A 'Corps' did not hold infantry or battalions permanently so battalions could swap between Corps. The ordinary soldier cared nothing of which corps his division was attached to. A Private had no excuse but to obey orders. Only 306 were executed during WW1 for failing to fight.


(7) According to the maps, the advance from St Omer was not the final position of the BEF Armies (Eg., the 4th Army moves south to Albert while the 1st Army to Bethune). So from 1914 – 1917 the Front is unstable. Battalions did their tour of 4-8 days in the trenches, then returned to their billets. They often stayed in the same sector for months. Even in 'quiet times' a battalion could lose 50 each month through death, wounds, or sickness.

Sources Quoted
1918 The Year of Victory. .....................…... (M.M Evens Arcturus Publ. 2005)
Battles of World War I. .........................…....  (M.M Evens Arcturus Publ. 2004)
The Experiences of WW1.   ...................…....  (J.M Winter Greenwich Ed. 2003
Stalemate! ..........................................….... (J.H Johnson. Arms & Armour 1995)
The Battle of Loos.     ..........................….... (P Warner. Wordsworth ed. 1976)
Mons Retreat to Victory. .......................…...  (J. Terraine.  Wordsworth Edn 2002)
Forgotten Voices. ..................................…..  (M Arthur. Edury Press 2002)
I Was There.   .....................................…...  (G.A. Lawson. The Amal. Press 1938)
First Day on the Somme.   ......................….. (M Middlebrook Penguin Books 1971)
Identifying Your WW1 Soldier.  .................... (I. Swinnerton Family History Soc. 2001)
For Valour.  ..........................................….  (B. Perrett Orion publ. 2003)
When the Barrage Lifts.  ............................  (C Barnett)
The Somme. Day by Day   ..........................  (C McCarthy)
A War in Words.   .....................................  (S Palmer & S Wallis)
WW1 In Colour.  ....................................….  (2 vols DVD Ken Branagh 2003)
VC's of WW1 The Western Front 1915. .......... (P.F Batchelor & C. Matson)
Yanks.   ...................................................  (J.S.D. Eisenhower)
The First World War  ..................................  (S Robson)
The First World War  .................................. (R Prior & T Wilson)
Spring Offensive     .................................... (G Harper)
Retreat, Hell, We Just Got Here .................. (M M Evans)
White Heat   .............................................  (J Terraine S & J Lon.82)
War Dairies.  .............................................  (Internet, books & Memorials)


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